God complex – A Serious Man review

A Serious Man – Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind and Sari Lennick. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Rated M. Originally published November 18, 2009. By Simon Miraudo.

Those cheeky Coen Brothers. They love to run both their characters and their audience through the wringer, don’t they? After turning the spy genre on its head with the black comedy Burn After Reading, they return once more to their never-ending plight to excavate the murky depths of the human soul with A Serious Man. The film is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of Job, a righteous man who was tested by God. Joel and Ethan Coen similarly test their lead character, Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), in a deliciously dark and intoxicating manner. The film is dripping in irony; it is bleak, unsettling, disturbing, challenging and even asphyxiating. It is waiting to be devoured and dissected and discussed. What can I say? It’s a mitzvah!

Not all is kosher in the world of Larry Gopnick. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the condescendingly comforting Sy Ableman. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a mathematical idiot savant and shnorrer extraordinaire, has moved into his home for an indefinite amount of time. His children, a pot-smoking son on the eve of his bar mitzvah and a daughter who seems to only wash her hair, have no interest in Larry except for his ability to fix the reception of the television. Things aren’t much better at work. A South Korean student is both bribing and blackmailing Larry in the hopes of changing his failing grade to a pass, while an anonymous letter-writer is encouraging the university board to deny him tenure. If Larry is an ant scuttling under the warm rays of the sun, The Coens are the mischievous boys holding the magnifying glass above him.

As Larry’s life systematically falls apart, he decides to turn to his faith. He looks to three rabbis for some advice, some comfort, some anything. As a physics professor, he refuses to believe the world could be ruled by chaos. Arthur has seemingly figured out an equation for the inner workings of the universe. Therefore, if there is an equation to life, there must surely be an answer. Is Larry being tested by God? Has his existence and all these events been predetermined? Or is the onslaught of ironic torture just one of those (un)happy coincidences? Oi gevald!

Joel and Ethan Coen love to play God; they put their characters through hell, torturing them endlessly and treating them with disdain before finally giving them peace (usually through death, madness or some form of imprisonment). In that sense, Larry Gopnick is the archetypal Coen Brothers hero. As frustratingly passive as Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There; as cluelessly destructive as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo; as hopelessly agonized as Barton Fink in Barton Fink. Does that make the brothers Coen cruel? A little. Larry frequently exclaims throughout the film: “I haven’t done anything!” But that doesn’t excuse him from punishment; in fact, that is reason enough. Austrian director Michael Haneke similarly tortures his characters and audiences by assuming they are inherently evil. At least the characters created by the Coens have it coming.

A Serious Man is one of the best films the Coen Brothers have ever made. It is also their most alienating and disturbing since Barton Fink, which also dealt with similar existential themes. Reteaming with cinematographer Roger Deakins for the tenth time, the brothers stunningly recreate the late 1960s in all its claustrophobic glory. Michael Stuhlbarg gives an Oscar-worthy performance; he remains sympathetic and relatable, even as the drek rains down harder and faster upon him. How many times do we also exclaim “I haven’t done anything” just like Larry Gopnick? Does that mean we too deserve punishment? Hey, maybe.

The film’s closest spiritual relations are Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and even Alex ProyasKnowing. However, while those films enliven the human spirit, this film suffocates it. That’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s a compliment. A Serious Man, despite its title, is very, very funny. However, you’ll find that you have to choke out the laughs. What begins as a slow-burn erupts into an inferno. Larry is slipping into hell, and so too do we. Don’t be fooled by the false sense of security towards the end of the picture. That’s simply the eye of the storm. The film ends with the ultimate dues-ex-machina: reality. It is the Coen Brothers grabbing the audience by the collar and screaming in our face: “Do something dammit!” If any film could convince us, it’d be this one.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

When we first published this review, readers took to the comments section to debate the film’s ending. Add your own thoughts below!

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